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Empowered Parenting in the Age of Social Media

NOTE: The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Larry Magid: I’m Larry Magid, and this is Are We Doing Tech Right?, a new podcast from Connect Safely where we speak with experts from tech, education, healthcare, government, and academia about tech policies, platforms, and habits that affect our daily lives.

Tracy Elizabeth, how are you? 

Tracy Elizabeth: Hi, I’m doing well. How are you? 

Larry Magid: I’m good. Well, you know, I just want the audience to know why I’m speaking with you. So you happen to be the head of family safety and developmental health at TikTok. Great job. Great title. Thank you. And that’s relevant to why we’re talking.

But as we talked earlier, before we went on the air, I’m not speaking with you as a TikTok representative. I really want to talk to you as somebody who’s been in this field longer than TikTok has been a company. Certainly longer, you know, since it was acquired. You’ve got a doctorate in human development and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

You were research director for the Children’s Media Project at Harvard. You worked for Netflix for three and a half years. So you have a long history, and I think you’re a parent. Is that right? Are you also a mom? 

Tracy Elizabeth: That’s right. I have a seven-year-old little girl. 

Larry Magid: Well, then even if the other things weren’t there, you’d be highly qualified.

Tracy Elizabeth: I’m learning fast, I tell you what. 

Larry Magid: I really have always been impressed at just how candid you are and just high energy and willing to admit that the world of social media isn’t perfect, yet at the same time, like me, optimistic and pro-youth, pro-kid. So that’s a good place to start. And this is an early episode of Are We Doing Tech Right?, so for the audience that isn’t familiar with this, it’s a new podcast where we’re talking to experts, teens, parents, academics, people from industry, lots of folks answering the question “are we doing tech right?” 

And I have a feeling the answer is never going to be 100% “yes.” And hopefully not a hundred percent “no.” We can also do tech better, I think we all agree on that. 

And speaking of better, the Surgeon General of the United States recently came out with a report that was mixed. I mean, it got a lot of press saying that, you know, social media is dangerous and that it could increase some issues like eating disorders and body comparison and can be related to depression.

There’s certainly some correlation, whether there’s causality or not, I’m not sure. You know, a lot of the report was negativity, but there was also some positivity in the report. He talked about how some populations, especially marginalized communities—LGBTQ, people with disabilities—can get the kind of support through social media that they might not be able to get in their actual geographic community.

And so it can literally be a lifesaver. In fact, the producer of our podcast, Chris Le, I met him long before he worked for ConnectSafely. He was with the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and he made a point very early in this field. MySpace was the big kahuna at the time and he made the point that MySpace at the time was the largest referral to the Lifeline and that children were alive because of MySpace.

I would assume the same is true because of Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and other social media platforms today. 

Tracy Elizabeth: I tell you what. I mean, I think that these social media platforms are tools with all sorts of opportunities. And not only are they places where you can express yourself, learn about your identity, right? But they’re also places where if you’re curious about a specific topic, or perhaps need help, they can be avenues to connect young people, kids and teens, with the help that they need. So I’m very optimistic that as we learn more about the ways in which we can empower young people online to learn and enjoy themselves, we also can figure out ways to get them to the resources that are best to help support their well-being.

Larry Magid: Let’s look at some of the Attorney General’s findings. They were concerned about body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, social comparison, and low self esteem, especially among adolescent girls. So let’s address those issues and again, not so much TikTok specific, but just in general. What’s your response to that criticism of social media in general?

Tracy Elizabeth: I mean, I do believe that all forms of media even before these digital spaces, right? So oftentimes I refer to social media as digital spaces and even before digital spaces we had all sorts of concerns even with magazines, right? Other types of books and other things that were in print imagery—billboards, film, television, and so—they’re [concerns] with all forms of media.

We’re going to see that there are these very valid concerns. What types of messages are being put out there? What are we normalizing for young people? How are they interpreting those media? And my perspective is this: digital media, social media is here to stay. It is a fact. It’s not going away. So as loving, well-intentioned adults who really care about the well-being of those young people, it’s our responsibility to listen and to learn and to figure out how we can shape these spaces in ways that are genuinely as safe and exciting as possible for young folks, but definitely I think we need to not sweep under the rug those negative sides of the media. 

Larry Magid: You know, there’s a big movement, if you want to call it, in this country about parental rights. But at the end of the day, I mean, what are parental rights and responsibilities when it comes to making sure your kids are using media in ways that are appropriate? Social media, or for that matter, any kind of media?

Tracy Elizabeth: I’m a former school teacher, and so I really believe in this, that, you know, this “it takes a village perspective.” I think that we all have a different level of responsibility. I think—I mean, in light of the Surgeon General’s recent report too—I think there’s so much about it that I quite appreciate it. I am a researcher myself and coming from an evidence-based perspective on how these different digital spaces work and affect young people is critical.

I do think that we still have more work to be done as scholars. I’d like to see more research. I’d like to see more investment across different industries to learn more. We need to do longitudinal studies, [to] really understand how are these media affecting people of all ages across time, but I am going to jump into this.

I think it is very common and incredibly valid for, for parents, for families, caregivers to lean into being really nervous about digital media, right? Social media. If you don’t understand it, just like anything else, you can get a little scared and so that’s why I do want to lean into: please, like families, you’ve got to use that app, play that game, understand those media, because the more that you learn about them, the more I believe that you’ll see how much fun it could be, right? And there’s all sorts of opportunity for education, for family bonding, to get to know your kids, get to know your teens and their interests. So, I’d love to move our bigger industry narrative away from being scared and into, whoa! We’ve got some opportunity here! How are we gonna leverage this and really lean into the positivity as well?

Larry Magid: And of course, there isn’t an activity in the world that doesn’t have some danger. I mean, kids are injured in soccer games. They fall off bicycles and it, and you know, that hasn’t kept most parents from allowing their kids to engage in them. But you do wear helmets and you do, you know, ride a bike and try to be as safe as possible.

Tracy Elizabeth: Exactly. The safety rules that families are teaching their kids and teens and not just families, right? Also, educators, other well-intentioned adults in teens’ lives that the same safety strategies that we’re talking with kids and teens about for hashtag IRL in real life, apply in digital spaces: don’t talk to strangers, don’t be friends with someone you don’t know, right?

And also be kind. Don’t say rude things. If you see something that’s rude, don’t indulge it. If you see something that seems scary or inappropriate, tell somebody, report it. So, those basic rules of thumb for safety in real life can work just as well in those digital spaces. You just have a slightly different conversation.

Larry Magid: Let’s say you’re a parent and you’re worried that your child is spending too much time on social media or your child is getting body images that are maybe causing them to you know, compare themselves and feel depressed or whatever. How do you, first of all, understand? How do you know if that’s happening? Because sometimes the kids don’t go out of their way to talk to their parents about it. How do you know, and how do you deal with it as a parent? 

Tracy Elizabeth: So first of all, I mean, it absolutely can be very concerning, and also this is tricky for parents. And I’m not guaranteeing that conversation will happen or that it will go well, but one thing is that parents do need to say, “Hey, how are you doing today? How are you feeling?” If there’s a specific app that your child or your teen is using, ask them about it, see if they’ll open up.

It works to get them to share with you what they like, right? Start with like that happy, positive space, safe space and conversation. What do you think is funny? What do you like? What do you post? And then move to a place where, where you can say, “Is there anything that made you uncomfortable? And if so, let me know.”

And, you know, I don’t want to be unrealistic about this. I think that there’s a strong likelihood that a lot of teens will be like, “Ugh, mom, quit, leave me alone. I’m not talking to you, right?” Like the conversation might just not go perfectly. Don’t give up okay, just like try again another time. 

And then another thing that’s really important when we look at research, when we talk with teens, like teen voices is incredibly important. Teens will say, “Please don’t freak out.” So what they’re saying to their parents and their trusted adults in their lives is, “I actually want you to help me set some boundaries and if I tell you that something is happening that’s uncomfortable or maybe sounds scary, don’t freak out. Listen to me and work with me to solve it.” And that’s going to help you the next time around if something happens, have them trust you and come back again. So things like that I think are incredibly critical for adults to consider. 

Larry Magid: You know, that’s one of the things we really stress in our guides because, I mean, you don’t want to punish the child for coming to you and talking to you about prodding. And by punish, even if you don’t mean it as a punishment: taking away their devices, not letting them use media, to them is going to feel like punishment. You’re denying that. Now that doesn’t mean—I’m not saying a hundred percent of the time. I mean, there are always exceptions to every, every general policy, but at the general policy, I agree.

If a child comes to you and says, “I have a problem,” the first response could be “I’m taking away your phone.” Or, you know, “I’m not letting you, I’m canceling your Instagram account,” It’s more like akin to, “Hey mom, Suzy skinned her knee in the soccer game.”

“Oh, oh my God. Soccer’s terrible. Well, you know, you’re not gonna play it.” 

Larry Magid: Yeah, you gotta put it in context.. 

Tracy Elizabeth: You give her a bandaid. You tell her, you know, “I love you, thanks for trying and let’s get back out there.” Yeah. And I think it will, it will over time build, it will build more trust and so when those moments, when they really need you, they’ll come to you and that’s critical.

Larry Magid: That’s very important. So I want to get back to this whole body image thing. So my daughter, who’s now an adult, is doing great. When she was a teenager, she used to watch this show. I hated it. It was a show of a bunch of girls in Florida playing volleyball, wearing bikinis, and they were all skinny.

They were hired for the purpose of looking like the producers wanted girls to look, right? And my daughter, who was very normal, she was not overweight, she was not underweight; she was kind of very healthy. After she watched this show, she’d always be sad because she didn’t look like these professional models that were hired to play volleyball in bikinis.

And that is a constant theme I’m hearing in social media about this. Some people call it “compare and despair” about people who are looking at other people. By the way, it happens to me as an adult even. I’ll have a colleague in journalism who just, you know, won a Pulitzer Prize, and I’ll feel bad that I don’t have a Pulitzer Prize, or somebody’s on a really cool location, or, you know, there’s all sorts of things that happen, but it’s really much more serious with kids, especially—well, it can be with boys and girls. Boys can also see, you know, guys with six pack abs or, you know, a pretty girlfriend or pretty boyfriend or whatever, and be depressed about it. 

Tracy Elizabeth: Yeah. I think that this is an unfortunate reality of our society that won’t be solved overnight and is very serious. Something that I’ve seen that gives me optimism is that we do see this new wave of body positivity being pushed out there. And so I don’t want to for a moment diminish that when we— all of us, but particularly young people—can be affected when we see imagery of a different body or life or lifestyle than the one that we have being glorified as better, that’s upsetting. And I think that there are ways that I think of calling it out, right?

Again, having direct conversations about this, that does help. I have a lot of hope. I see this new wave of young people who are leaning into “different doesn’t mean bad; it means wonderful.” Right? And I have a lot of faith. I remember: yeah, different is just different. And I’m really appreciating that I think that this younger generation is pushing acceptance of themselves and their differences in ways that I don’t think we’ve seen before.

And I also am seeing an intolerance for meanness. So my hope is that between combining an intolerance for being unkind and judging people based on their appearance, right? In addition to embracing different bodies and different lifestyles that we can move to another place. And perhaps it’s the type of thing that, as much as social media, is shining a flashlight on the challenges. It might also help be an avenue to treat some of these societal challenges more swiftly. 

Larry Magid: And as you pointed out, and as I mentioned, my daughter’s example, it’s not new. I mean, when I was a kid, I was chubby and I was very embarrassed. I wore a T-shirt at the beach because I didn’t want people to see my belly. It actually turned out great because it means I have a lower risk of skin cancer. 

Tracy Elizabeth: I know, I was going to say, you have healthier skin. 

Larry Magid: Right. Yeah. But seriously, I mean, I remember what it was like. Like how, how horrible it was to go to a beach because all these great looking guys were out there on the beach and here I was a chubby kid. 

Tracy Elizabeth: Yeah. Yeah. From an adolescent development perspective, these things are going to happen. So I’ve studied risk and prevention and there’s all sorts of risk factors that young people experience that can lead to negative life consequences, but there’s also protective factors.

When we’re starting to worry about those risk factors, like being exposed to negative body messaging, we need to lean into how can we uplift the protective factors. And some of those protective factors that are very, very powerful, research has shown, are things like if an adolescent just has one, one good friend. All it takes is one trusted beloved buddy in your teenage years to put you on a path where, sure, you’re going to feel insecure, but you’re way less likely to have your mood move to that place of depression, severe anxiety, etc. 

Larry Magid: So, going back to the question of, you know, too much time online, so-called “screen time,” and right now I think most experts, including the American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatricians, have changed their guidelines.

They’re no longer arbitrary, saying you have to have two hours or three hours. It’s more recognizing the fact that screens—and for that matter, devices that don’t even have screens, like, like, you know, Amazon Echo devices and things like that—are just, we live it, we live in that world. There is something about a well-rounded, balanced life, you know, about whether it’s exercise or just hanging out with friends or having dinner with people or reading or even watching TV instead of (if that’s what you like), instead of being on social media.

What do you guys do in your household to make sure that there’s a balance between what’s on screens and what’s not on screens?

Tracy Elizabeth: Love this question. And just for what it’s worth, we are still fine tuning, right, the rules and regulations of the home to see if we can get to a good spot. My husband and I try to model healthy screen time use.

So we put our phones away before dinner and, or make a practice of not looking at that phone. I do really believe it’s not one-size-fits-all. So we’ve started to learn from our daughter when too much media use and what type of media use is upsetting her, but I can’t underscore enough: I am looking at each of those tools for each of these apps.

I’ve set the screen time limits. I set when they’re going to turn off her device. I’ve set when she’s allowed to use them. When that 30 minutes or hour exceeds, we get a ping, right? And I can make a decision on how things are going for her day. So if she’s going to be allowed to proceed with the screen time or not, so I try to stay very involved.

Larry Magid: And I think that’s the key, “very involved.” Parents are such an important, obviously, such an important part of the life of children. 

And one of the things that research has shown that may seem counterintuitive, that when you ask teenagers who are the most important people to give them advice, parents might be shocked to know that the answer is very often parents. They are the leading source of advice and support for teenagers. You might not think it. 

Tracy Elizabeth: I love it. 

And the other experience I had is that now that my kids are adults, my kids have actually come back to me to say, “You know, that conversation we had when I was 16, I thought about it.” This is like years later, like decades later. My wife instituted this policy that when we were in the car together, the kids could listen to anything they wanted to any music, anything, but it had to be through the speakers. It couldn’t be through headphones. So my daughter would be listening to Eminem, who is, you know, a very great musician and artist, but he felt very misogynistic, or he was at that time. We would have these amazing conversations about his lyrics and yes, far better than banning it. You know, it was really useful. It was really great and then later she came back to me and she denied it. And I said, he would use the B word. And I said, no, that’s really inappropriate. And she’d say, “No, no, it’s just…” and later she came back to me and said, “Yeah, Dad, I’ve thought about this and you’re, you’re kind of right.” 

Tracy Elizabeth: I think that’s wonderful though, because what you did is you tried to engage in a conversation, right? You saw something that seemed a little bit inappropriate, or it was not aligned with your family values, and you talked about it, right?

And, you know, maybe in the moment it didn’t seem like it was really sinking in, but here you go. Years later she reflected it probably shaped, yeah, her overall development in a positive way. 

Larry Magid: It was a conversation,  and that’s what I’m saying, and you don’t only—you don’t have to always agree with your kid.

The kids don’t have to always agree with you. I mean, as a parent you do, I guess, get the last word, but on the other hand, kids have an opportunity to express themselves. I mean, how I approached it as a parent and my kids certainly turned out well, [but] I mean every parent’s got a different style, I know that. 

Tracy Elizabeth: They do. I think that we also see that offering rationales is very effective. So if you are going to firmly enforce a rule, right, if you feel like, “Hey, I need to firmly enforce this rule.” As an example, “Your screen time is up at 7:30 p.m. because you need to be going to bed or doing your homework”, whatever it is. It’s important to follow that up with the why, and the why is something along the lines of, “I love you. I care about these other parts of your life. I’m concerned you might be distracted or won’t have time to do this other part of your life that also helps you be healthy and happy.” 

And so they might get upset with you or angry or disagree in the moment, but offering that context for why you’re doing that beyond just trying to flex, you know, an authority muscle, but like, “Hey, I’m doing this for your best interest,” that’s also very effective in the long term.

Larry Magid: You know, it’s interesting you say that because, I mean, there are some parents who would disagree with you who would say no, simply saying, you know, this is the way it is because I’m the parent, it’s efficient And I understand that way of looking at things. You certainly want your kids to respect you and other adults and respect everyone, but at the end of the day, I think you’re right. That explaining things to kids does actually, is a sign of strength in the parent. I mean, if you’re a parent who is using your ability to kind of explain things in a way, and that’s creating stronger children and is actually indicative, in my opinion, of a stronger parent.

Tracy Elizabeth: Yes, and there’s research to support this as well. There’s all sorts of different discourse, analysis, literacy conversations that have been conducted, and there are different parenting styles and types that I know have changed over the years. There’s different ways of dialogue that parents engage in.

And what scholars have found is that the more that you have open-ended conversations, which means not only providing context and reasons, but also, instead of asserting facts, asking open-ended questions: “Why do you think we have put your screen time limit to this time,” right? Having that open-ended, more exploratory dialogue is correlated with more positive life outcomes that are not just rooted in social health, but also academic well-being.

Larry Magid: You know, Tracy, I really want to thank you. Do you have any last minute thoughts before we say goodbye?

Tracy Elizabeth: You know, I think my last minute thought is we are all in this together, right? These industries, we are here having these conversations together because we genuinely care, right? Like we all have this shared mission: we want to protect kids, we want to protect teens, we want to protect families and have them enjoy their time and digital spaces. 

I think the digital world is here to stay. So as much as we can continue with these conversations, the more effective we’ll be in protecting young people. Lean into the positivity, use these apps as a way to bond, get to know each other, get to know your child’s interests and also as a way to help grow them as individuals. 

Larry Magid: Well, Tracy, Head of Family Safety and Developmental Health at TikTok. Thank you so much. (Full disclosure, TikTok is one of ConnectSafely’s supporters.) Thank you very much for that. We really appreciate your thoughts, not just as a TikTok person, but really your wide range of experience from your doctorate work, your teaching, your academic research, your work at Netflix, all the things you’ve done around making media— social and otherwise—safer and more appropriate for kids.

Thanks again. 

Tracy Elizabeth: Of course. Thank you. It’s just such a lovely opportunity. I appreciate it.

Larry Magid: Are We Doing Tech Right? is produced by Christopher Le. Maureen Kochan is the Executive Producer. Theme music by Will Magid. I’m Larry Magid.

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